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South Korea bans importation of “The Cove” dolphins

By Erica Cirino

It’s been nearly 9 years since The Cove brought the story of dolphin massacres in Taiji, Japan, and the issue of captive cetaceans before the eyes of millions of people around the world. The film shows viewers the images of fishers corralling dozens of thrashing and squealing dolphins into nets set up in Japan’s sheltered Taiji Cove with their boats. Once the dolphins are trapped in the nets, the fishers stab most of the dolphins with long gaffs, turning the water red with dolphin blood. A few of the youngest, healthiest dolphins are spared—instead of being killed, the fishers tie them up in nets and bring them to shore, to be sold into captivity at marine parks across Asia. When the film was released, scientists said up to 22,000 small cetaceans—small whales, porpoises and dolphins—were killed in these Japanese hunting expeditions annually.

While The Cove has inspired many to oppose Japan’s treatment of cetaceans, the Taiji hunts have persisted—with Japan defending the hunts as a “cultural tradition.” However, significant progress has been made worldwide in challenging humans’ perceptions around cetacean captivity and cruelty. Across the world, some countries and states have banned keeping cetaceans in captivity, obtaining cetaceans from the wild for captivity and/or captive cetacean performances; activities marine mammal experts say are cruel. Responding to pressure from scientists, activists and the public, in 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed killer whales.

The most recent country to enact its own legislation affecting captive cetaceans is South Korea, which had been importing an estimated 70 percent of its captive dolphins from Taiji, according to Hotpinkdolphins, an organization that promotes cetacean rights in the country. Thanks to the work of Hotpinkdolphins and several other South Korean nonprofits, last month, South Korea’s Ministry of Environment prohibited the importation of Taiji dolphins to the country, and also the importation of threatened dolphin populations—such as around Jeju Island. While South Korea’s ban will help a small number of dolphins, and does not go so far as to prohibit dolphin captivity, it’s an event that animal rights activists are celebrating as a win that brings the Taiji hunts back into the spotlight for the world to discuss and react to.

Short-beaked common dolphin, Great south channel off Montauk, NY. Photo: Carl Safina

Read the rest of this post, originally published to National Geographic’s Wildlife Blog on April 11, 2018. 

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